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Writing the video games of the future

ArenaNet narrative designers Aaron Linde and Alex Kain discuss VR, and what they see as the future of interactive storytelling

ArenaNet senior narrative designer Aaron Linde opened the PAX West panel by illiciting a big audience laugh. He showed a clip of LA Noire: The VR Case Files, where the player as detective Cole Phelps waves his hands about perplexedly in front of a mirror. Phelps' face, captured by actor Aaron Staton, stares first mildly confused and then outright annoyed at his reflection.

It's a humorous experience for the player, but also a potential "mindfuck" (as Linde puts it) of an experience for exactly one person on earth: Aaron Staton. The clip is of Staton's face and expression, and yet simultaneously it isn't him. And it's experiences like this hypothetical one Staton could have that Linde sees as a potential future for narrative storytelling in games.

Cover image for YouTube video

Linde follows this clip up with a question to the panel: What is the most "emotionally arresting" experience they have ever had in VR? For fellow ArenaNet narrative designer Alex Kain, it was was when he played VR adventure-puzzler Moss from Polyarc. That game, he says, is in many ways like any other in its genre. But the position of the player relative to the world breaks a new barrier for how games can tell stories.

"The fact that you're physically in the scene completely changes the narrative context," he says. "It's not Quill looking at a character you're controlling, it's Quill looking at you, who is in the scene. And removing that gap gives us what feels like unlimited potential for storytelling in games.

"As writers dealing with the medium now, we create characters, you see those characters act on a screen, and they do things that characters do. In VR, we have this very unique opportunity to cast the player as a character. You can be yourself, or you can assume the role of a specific character, but you feel genuine empathy when you're in VR. What is that experience like, when everyone looks like themselves on the internet? Maybe this is optimistic of me, but I personally believe you'll have fewer assholes on the internet if everyone has to look like themselves."

"I think there's going to be a point where the [VR] dam breaks"

Aaron Linde

While Linde and Kain aren't currently working in VR themselves, they speak about the possibilities it could bring with great enthusiasm throughout the panel and after in a follow-up conversation with GamesIndustry.biz. Both of them hope that MMOs, whether they're Guild Wars 2 or some other large-scale experience, will eventually jump in and create unusual or interesting interactions in VR like the ones they described earlier.

Linde thinks it's already happening.

"There's that VR Chat thing that was big," he says. "There's a huge, almost meme culture built around this social game that's just VR Chat where you just assume an avatar and you're running around this space and you can hear others locally in speaking distance. So I can be shouting across a room and somebody can hear me. There are videos of that stuff online. I think there's a space for a large-scale communal interactive experience like that with a game context on top of it. It's going to happen, and I'm really curious to see how that's going to manifest.

"It's hard to say whether or not that's actually going to work or how much refinement it's going to take before it gets to a state where it's actually going to be commercially viable and interesting enough you're going to want to spend time with it, but I think it's an inevitability. The more ubiquitous that VR becomes and the longer we have to try and find ways to conform what we consider traditional gameplay experiences in that new medium, the better we're going to get at it.

"I think there's going to be a point where the dam breaks. Right now the new HTC Vive has a wireless adapter. You get that thing down to about $400 or $300, with the built-in wireless, as soon as there's an all-in-one solution that somebody can just throw $300 at, bring it home, and have it work out of the box, I think the dam will break and you're going to see all kinds of new experiences. Then the ubiquity is going to go way up."

That ubiquity, Linde and Kain agree, goes both ways. The two believe that an inevitable major influx of VR users will go hand-in-hand with a sudden surge in types of games, created by studios of all sizes and types. They say they see the bubbling of that surge already, as independent developers test the types of experiences they can make and learn what Kain refers to as the "rules" of VR.

Polyarc's Moss uses VR's ability to make a player feel they are in the scene to forge an emotional connection between the player as themselves, and the game's main character, Quill

"Just like with film, we're in the Great Train Robbery era of VR," Kain says. "In that time, they were still learning the language. They were trying to figure out things like, 'How does a cut work? What does that actually do?' 'Well, you turn the camera off, then you move the camera somewhere else, then you turn it back on again.' And it was like, 'Woah, hold on! Slow down!' People are still figuring that out for VR. What are the rules for telling a story in VR? People still don't know yet."

"Look at the gulf between The Great Train Experiment and Hitchcock, how much development of that grammar had to happen in that intervening period," Linde says. "And that's where we're at. The grammar is being developed. Or to point at video games. We're in the SNES era. We're just now getting to the point where fidelity is starting to rise and the degree of different kinds of experiences we can have are starting to accelerate.

"I feel like one of those douchebag futurists now, trying to be like, 'It's all the future, it's going to be amazing!' But that anecdote about the LA Noire VR thing, it wasn't until I saw that and really thought about how much of a mind-bending experience it would be to see yourself perfectly rendered in a space, where that's not you, but you can move around in that space. And then when I really tried to wrap my head around how that would feel and how that would make me reflect on a different kind of emotional experience, the more I was like, 'Holy shit, this is going to be a really big change.' There is going to be stuff we can't conceive of right now."

Linde and Kain have made it clear they agree a massive change in how video game stories are told is on the horizon and is, in many ways, already happening. The two believe it will shake the industry enough that their own role and responsibilities as storytellers and narrative designers will begin to change. As games define more deeply what components make the kinds of stories the medium can tell unique, those in their position will be on the forefront of creating those definitions.

"That four feet of space between your couch and the television screen? That gulf is miles long"

Alex Kain

"Interactivity is the element that changes the nature of the entertainment," says Linde. "In any other format, watching a film, reading a book, those are passive forms of engagement. You're witnessing them. There's all kinds of controversy that can arise out of something like a truly violent movie. But the movie has a perspective on that where it's not empowering the audience to participate or partake. It's showing something, and there's an attitude that it expresses about that something. It may show really violent behavior favorably; it may show it as a terrible thing. But there's a wall between the audience and that experience.

"VR is at once a more intimate experience, but it's also a more unguided and undirected experience. You can't just draw focus anywhere - you can't make a player look at a thing. They're inhabiting a space and doing what they want. But at the same time you have an opportunity to do some really intimate storytelling. There's a VR version of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice out right now and you hear the voices in your head. Senua's Sacrifice is a deeply affecting game already. But to be able to make that jump - it's not that far away, but the difference [between console and VR] is worlds apart in terms of how that can affect you and emotionally engage you."

"That four feet of space between your couch and the television screen? That gulf is miles long," Kain adds. "To me it's the difference between watching someone get hurt on a movie screen and watching someone get hurt on stage during a play. You are connecting with these characters more because you are with them physically. They are physically next to you. You have that emotional connection with them. I think as writers we have a responsibility to both use that connection and be wary of how people interpret that. There's stuff that we need to learn how to do."

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice can be an affecting game in its console form, but its VR version makes the voices whispering to its titular character even more haunting

Both Linde and Kain tell me that they understand the weight of their responsibility as writers on such stories, both now and as technology progresses. There already are and will continue to be limits to what experiences are acceptable to audiences, they say, and it will be on developers and storytellers like them to be considerate about what those limits might be. It's a responsibility that they're apprehensive about, but also hopeful for. Because alongside those new limits will also come new freedoms, and new ways to connect with an audience in a positive way.

"All the things that affected us so deeply that got us into that kind of stuff, those were made by people [who are just as] dumb and fallible just as we are"

Aaron Linde

"I've been writing games for over a decade now," Kain says. "And people will come up to me and they will say, 'I played this game you wrote or helped to write, and I experienced this thing, and it helped me to change in this way.' And I will think back to that thing that I wrote, and I will realize I don't remember writing it. That terrifies me, to some degree, that it is this responsibility that we as creators wield that people playing these things experience them and internalize them and it can effect how they perceive the world.

"As a writer in particular for games, I think that while it is initially scary, I think it's one of the best parts of the kind of work that we do. Even though moment to moment we don't feel like we're changing people, we are. That gives me hope that things I write, people will enjoy and internalize and will be able to use for positivity, for their own development."

Linde adds that "one of the most magical things about fiction and storytelling" is making an emotional connection with an individual or audience.

"All the things that affected us so deeply that got us into that kind of stuff, those were made by people, and those people are dumb and fallible just as we are, so it stands to reason that we might actually be able to do that too," he says.

"In Battleborn, there's a character I wrote that's maybe my favorite character I've ever written. His name is ISIC, and he's an AI in this walking battle tank body. I wrote him in a particularly low period in my life, through a big collaboration with the voice actor Jim Foronda. We came up with a character that was the most nihilistic character I could've ever written delivered with the most moviephone voice you've ever heard. Just bright and cheery and happy. And he was just a blast to write, and I remember thinking when I was writing him, 'No one's going to dig this. This is just funny to me.'

"And I got a six-page, handwritten letter after the launch of the game about ISIC. This person, who had also experienced some crushing depression, had seen something in that character. And it blew my mind. That connection could be facilitated by a character that tells people, 'I'm going to rip off your legs and beat you to death with them' in a really cheery voice. That was one of the greatest moments in my career. I couldn't believe I had done that for somebody. It's insane that that's a thing you can do. It's insane that you can maintain a human connection with someone over something as dumb as a video game."

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Rebekah Valentine

Senior Staff Writer

Rebekah arrived at GamesIndustry in 2018 after four years of freelance writing and editing across multiple gaming and tech sites. When she's not recreating video game foods in a real life kitchen, she's happily imagining herself as an Animal Crossing character.